This article was updated on August 15th, 2023
Many times in practice, I had owners bring their dogs in because they noticed brown or black gunk or pus in their dog’s ears. Each time, I explained the goop indicated an ear infection but there are a variety of causative factors for the condition.
In this article, we’ll describe the top causes of brown or black ear discharge in dogs, when you can treat the condition at home, and when it’s time to call the vet. To help you prepare for an office visit, we’ll tell you what to expect and how the doctor can help your pup.
What does a black or brown ear discharge look like?
When a dog has a brown or black discharge (or pus / gunk), it usually means your dog has an ear infection. The color and character of the wax may help to identify the underlying cause. Let’s look at several examples.
Examples of black and brown ear discharge in dogs
Brown discharge in a dog with an ear mite infection. The color may vary from medium brown to dark brown or reddish-brown. When your pooch exhibits ear scratching or head shaking or the ear has an odor, your dog likely has an infection.
Pictured below: black ear wax in a dog with an ear infection. Notice the coffee-ground appearance of the discharge. This is often an indication of ear mites:
What does a normal dog ear look like?
A normal dog’s ear will be clean and have the appearance of pink, healthy skin.
Top causes of brown or black ear discharge in dogs
Brown or black ear discharge accompanies several conditions that can affect your dog’s ear health. Usually, the discharge color can help you identify the underlying condition (see our dog ear wax color chart). The most common causes include:
1. Otitis externa
Infection and inflammation of the outer ear occur commonly in dogs because of the shape of the ear canal. Canines with floppy ears may be more susceptible to infections as they’re more likely to trap moisture, dirt, and bacteria. When wax and debris build up in the canal, it creates a favorable environment for bacterial or yeast overgrowth.
Signs of otitis externa include:
- Waxy, reddish-brown discharge
- Pawing or scratching the ears
- Head shaking
- Red, inflamed ears
- Painful ears
- A foul or fruity odor
Ear infections require veterinary care to ensure your pooch receives the appropriate antibiotic or antifungal medication to treat the infection. At home, you can help your dog’s recovery by cleaning his ears with an appropriate ear cleaning solution. Your veterinarian may also recommend a drying solution to reduce excess moisture in the ear canal. If your pup has severe or recurring ear infections, surgery may be necessary.
2. Ear Mites
Ear mites most commonly affect puppies, but they can occur in any dog. The tiny skin parasites feast on canine ear wax, and they are transmissible between dogs. When your pup has an ear mite infection, you will see a crusty, dark brown to black discharge that resembles coffee grounds. Other signs of ear mites include ear scratching and head shaking.
If you suspect ear mites, it’s best to talk to your veterinarian. He may be able to diagnose the pests with a microscope. There are various ear mite treatments for dogs, but some will not kill the eggs or immature stages. Your dog’s doctor can help you choose the best product for his needs.
3. Middle or Inner Ear Infection
Otitis media and otitis interna infections in dogs resemble otitis externa, and they often arise from untreated external ear infections. In addition to the dark, crusty ear discharge, you may observe:
- Reluctance to open the mouth
- Head tilting
- Head shaking
- Walking in circles
- Scratching or rubbing ears
- Hot, waxy ears
- Red, crusty, scabby skin in the ear
Infections of the inner or middle ear should be seen by your veterinarian. Treatment usually includes antibiotics and ear flushing to clean deep into the canal. If the condition is severe, surgery may be necessary.
When is it okay to treat my dog at home, and how long can I try?
If you catch an ear infection in the early stages, and it appears to be mild, you can try to manage it at home (read our article with home remedies for ear infections). Be aware that ear infections rarely clear up without the appropriate veterinary treatment. If the symptoms get worse or persist without signs of improvement after a week, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.
How to help your dog at home
When you catch a mild ear infection in the early stages, you may be able to treat it at home. These remedies can also help your pup while you’re waiting for the veterinary appointment.
1. Clean your dog’s ears
You can use an ear-cleaning solution that’s approved or recommended by your veterinarian to flush out waxy and dirt buildup in the canal. Start by cleaning your dog’s ears once a day for the first week then weekly or as needed.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
Take your dog to the vet if your dog’s symptoms get worse, or if you see the following signs.
- Blood or pus discharge
- Head tilt or leaning/falling to one side
- Redness/inflammation and swelling
- Foul or fruity odor
- Ear hematomas
For tips on how to properly clean your dog’s ears, check out this video.
2. Address underlying allergies
Many ear infections stem from underlying allergies. If your pooch has environmental or food allergies, take steps to eliminate potential triggers. Feed your dog a hypoallergenic diet or give him routine antiparasitic treatments, Your veterinarian may prescribe allergy medications such as Apoquel. For mild cases, you may be able to use an over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl.
3. Prevent self-trauma
Take steps to keep your dog from harming himself with continual scratching. Keep his nails trimmed, and use an E-collar if necessary.
4. Remove hair from the ear canal
Some breeds like poodles have excess hair in their ear canals. This hair can trap dirt, debris, and moisture and set your pup up for ear infections. Plucking the hair can reduce the risk of repeated ear problems. However, if your pooch has an active ear infection, plucking the hair can be extremely painful for him.
Read more with our article: home remedies for ear infections [Vet Approved].
When is a black or brown ear discharge a sign that I need to go to the vet?
If your pooch has an ear infection with brown or black discharge, you may be able to try some home remedies. But if the signs get worse, or if you notice other symptoms listed below, you should take your pup to the vet.
- Painful ears
- Red, swollen ear canal
- Bloody discharge from the ear
- Pus coming from the ear
- Tilting head to one side
- Odor coming from the ear
- Leaning or falling to one side
- Reluctance to chew food
Signs that your dog is in pain
Dogs can’t tell us when or where they’re hurting with words, but they will exhibit signs of pain.
WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]
- Shaking or trembling
- Crying/vocalization when you touch the painful area
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Reluctance to be touched/pulling away
- Increased respiration rate/panting
- Decreased appetite
What will happen at the vet
When you take your pup to the vet, he’ll start by asking you questions to get a history of the condition. You can prepare to answer questions such as:
- When did you first notice the ear discharge?
- Have you noticed any changes in your dog’s ears/have they gotten worse?
- Have you noticed any other symptoms?
- Does your dog have any allergies?
- Have you noticed any changes in your dog’s behavior?
- Have you tried any treatments or remedies at home? What are they?
Once the doctor has a history of the condition, he’ll conduct a physical exam and evaluate both of your dog’s ears. He may
- Palpate the ears to assess pain
- Evaluate the amount of redness and swelling
- Swab the discharge and examine it under a microscope
- Culture the discharge for bacteria
- Assess the ear canal and eardrum with an otoscope
The cost of examination and diagnostic tests can vary from region to region and will depend on the types of tests your veterinarian uses to reach a diagnosis. For an uncomplicated case of otitis externa, the cost for diagnosis and treatment averages around $100-250. However, if the infection spreads or there are secondary conditions, the total cost may run over a thousand dollars.
How can a vet help a dog with a brown or black ear discharge
When a dog has a black or brown discharge and an ear infection, your veterinarian can run tests to diagnose the underlying cause. Once he determines the root condition, he will provide appropriate treatment to help eliminate the problem.
- The doctor will gently clean your dog’s ear(s) with a medicated cleanser to remove gunk and treat the underlying condition.
- He may send topical medications or a medicated cleanser home for you to continue treating the ear.
- When there’s inflammation, the doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory medicine.
- If your veterinarian diagnoses ear mites, he will treat the condition with an antiparasitic medication.
- For severe bacterial infections, your vet will prescribe an oral antibiotic.
With early diagnosis and treatment of brown/black ear discharge in dogs, the prognosis is good. Most dogs respond to regular cleaning and the appropriate medication. Chronic or severe infections can take much longer to heal and leave your dog at risk for hearing loss and other complications.
Dog Ear Wax Color Chart: What Do These Colors Mean?